Two Right Whale Studies Brighten Grim Outlook for Species

November 29, 2001

A new population of eastern North Pacific right whales, thought to be almost extinct, has been discovered in the southeastern Bering Sea.

Heavy fishing in the 1960s and '70s in the deep waters off Unalaska Island almost eradicated the entire population of these whales. But within the last few years, scientists doing surveys of marine mammal life encountered a group of up to seven right whales in a region of the southeastern Bering Sea, near outer Bristol Bay, where the waters are much shallower.

William Peterson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Newport, Oregon, said his colleague Cynthia Tynan saw groups of the whales in the region three times—once a group of five or six. "To see any of these whales is exceptional," he said.

Water samples taken where the whales were sighted revealed that the animals had found a new food source.

"The water looked amazing," said Peterson, who analyzed the samples. The water was full of tiny marine crustaceans called Calanus marshallae, which vary in size between one and 10 millimeters long. "They are the most abundant animal of earth—the 'cattle of the sea,'" said Peterson.

Peterson was surprised by the size of the C. marshallae in the water samples Tynan had given him. "These animals are longer, twice as heavy, and very, very rich in fats," compared with populations of C. marshallae off the coast of Oregon that Peterson had studied.

The C. marshallae "look orange, they are so full of fat," said Tynan. Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington.

The whales had moved to a new location and switched to a different food source, but why they did was not clear, the scientists said. "This might be a quieter part of ocean—less traffic, fewer predators, and more prey," Tynan suggested.

"What is most important about this study is that we have established a region where we can expect to see and study these animals with some predictability," she added.

The results of the new study are reported in the November 30 issue of the journal Science.

Survival Uncertain

Tynan said that although the sighting of right whales in the Bering Sea is uplifting news, the population of eastern North Pacific right whales is probably no more than a couple dozen.

Continued on Next Page >>


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